April 16, 2010

Christmas & New Year

Interview conducted and recorded for the Library of Congress by Alan Lomax: Huddie (Leadbelly) Ledbetter is asked about Christmas traditions down on Caddo Lake in the Texas-Louisiana border area. Many thanks to Claude LeMasson in Northern France for some of the details. It's not all easy to understand, even for a person whose first language is English.

(Q is Lomax, H is Huddie) 
Alan Lomax

Q: Where did you learn to play, Huddie, by listening to other people?

H: By listening to other people, you know, the words, that’s the way you’ve got to learn, if you don’t know.

Q: Do you think, when the sisters get happy in church they’re pretending, or do they really mean it all the time?

H: Well, I’ll tell you, them old Baptist sisters just feel like moving at that time. They feel the spirit.

Q: They’re not just putting on?

H: They ain’t putting on, ‘cause you know, in church when a sister jumps up and shouts, she got to feel the move, ‘cause lots of them ashamed, you see, but them sisters what shouts, they ain’t ashamed ‘cause they figured you’ve got the state of God, you don’t be ashamed nowhere, so they just get up and go to shouting. And my mama, she used to be the shoutingest thing you ever see, and she fixing to feeling good, she shout all the time, that’s all. And I’ll tell you another thing about my mama, she was a real Baptist and I believe it ‘cause every Christmas, I don’t care when a Christmas come, she gonna shout, I don’t care whether she out on the street, I don’t care what she be in somebody’s house she ain’t never saw before, but when Christmas morning come she gonna get up and go around shaking the hands, and “Thank you, thank you, Good Lord and thank you,” and come right home in the bed , she gonna come in there and jump right on my neck and go to patting me, “My son, my son, thank God for to let you see another Christmas, thank God , you don’t know where you’d be the next Christmas, but I thank the Good Lord, for that you seen and smiled for so many Christmases. My son, my child, my son and only one, I thank the Good Lord for smiling. Get up, son, and give the Lord some thanks for letting you see some Christmas.” I say, “Yes, ma’m, mama, I will after a while.” Then I’d get up.

Q: What would you do on Christmas Day, Huddie — at your house?

H: Well, what we’d do at my house, and I’ll tell you about all the Baptist people, they may drink wine at (?) time, but at Christmas, they’re going to have a little jug behind the desk. They call that the “Jimmie John.” They keep it up there all year, but they ain’t gonna bring it until Christmas comes. And when Christmas comes, they’re gonna bring that out, and everybody gonna have a drink. A lot of the neighbors all come around, people living in the woods down there and they right close, and all of them meet at one another’s house and they have a drink, and they have some breakfast there, and eat, see, and when they get onto the table, they always gonna say a blessing, and this is the blessing that my father always say, and I say it at night in my home when I say the blessing:
“Thank us the Good Lord for what we are about to receive, for the mercies, for the body of Christ Our Redeemer’s sake, Amen.”
And then we eat.

Q: Well, after breakfast, what would you do? What would you have for breakfast, when you were a little boy?

H: When I was a little boy my mother had cakes, pies, chickens and turkeys. You see, we raised them there. Pork. And we had sausages, pork sausage, they had some — everything you had on that table, in them times when they’d fix the table, that table — as fast as it get empty, they’d get some more, they’d put on it, it never get empty and it never — clean up the table, they’d keep a white sheet over the table, and that you spread over the food, and when you go there, anybody, you, friends or anybody come there, they ain’t got a thing to do but just turn that curtain back and, that tablecloth back and go right in to eating, and fast as they eat up, my mother’d put some more bags there until Christmas time — it goes on for a week that way. Christmas time takes a whole week, not just a day, but they don’t get out until the week’s out. New Year come.

Q: Well, would you get presents on Christmas?

H: We had a Christmas feast at Elizabeth Church — that’s my mama’s and them’s church, and that’s a Baptist, and every Christmas you see they go — my father used to be one of the men go out and help cut down a cedar tree, that’s what we have, for a Christmas tree, cut down a big cedar tree and set it up in the church and everybody puts presents on there, and they got the names on it, and they have some certain girls, so many girls, so many boys, they call them presents up. And then, when they call, you go up and get your present. That’s the way they done.

Q: What else would you do beside go to church, and have breakfast? Were there any special parties?

H: Well, now, when . . . they always, Christmas Eve, they used to go to church on Christmas Eve night and wait and see Christmas Day come, and then, when the New Years coming, they alway go and sing all night, go to church and stay all night long.

Q: Are there any special songs that they sung while they were waiting for Christmas Eve?

H: They’d always word out a hymn and then when they’d word out a hymn, well then they used to sing the prayer “Being So Glad For What the Lord Had Done,” they’d sing that song about, “Ain’t You Glad the Blood Done Sign My Name?” and then, after they’d sing that, then they’d sing, er, “Give Me That Old Time Religion.” Well, after they sang that, they’d sing, “I’m So Glad I’m In the Army of the Lord.” That means they’re fighting soldiers, which is Baptists, and they’re gonna fight until they die.

Q: There weren’t any songs that mention Christmas? Particularly?

H: [Not understanding the question.] They wouldn’t mention those songs ‘cause they’d just go ahead and sing them when the time comes. They never — they didn’t never did mention just like a program you’re gonna have. They didn’t do that.

Q: No, but there weren’t any songs that they sung just at the time Christmas was coming in, were there?

H: That they sang right at the time Christmas was coming in?

Q: Right at the midnight hour.

H: Well, when Christmas coming in, they always sing — lemme see, I used to know the song that they sing, too, when Christmas was coming in — er, um, — Christ Our Redeemer — I forget it now, yeah, I forget it, but they did have a song they sung right at the hour when Christmas, New Years done coming, they singing, they had a song they sung right then.

Q: Did they have “Old” Christmas where you were growing up, too?

H: Old Christmas?

Q: Yes. The 12th of January.

H: I don’t know about that. They had New Years Day, but the only Christmas I ever know was on the 25th day of December.

Q: Well, did they believe stuff about what the cows did?

H: Believe something the cows did when?

Q: On Christmas. Facing to the East.

H: Well, I used to hear that, too. I used to hear that too.

Q: What did they say about it?

H: I forget what they said. I don’t remember now, I used to hear something they say about the cows, they turned their faces to the East. But I didn’t know nothing about it.

Q: Well, would they have Sukey Jumps at Christmas week?

H: Oh, man! they’d have, that’s what they’d do, they’d have a “tracted” (?) dance — that mean a dance every night until New Year come, from Christmas they’d come on up until New Year — ‘cause I used to go there and play for them. Yes sir, they had “tracted” dance and that’s out in Terrell, Texas, down there in Kaufman County.

Q: Dance all night and all day, too?

H: Well, they wouldn’t dance all day, they’d be round there, you know, everybody’d be drinking and having a big time, and so, but they’d be that night — all night, never stop, all night long.

Q: When to when?

H: From ken to ken (?) and that means from when the sun rises, I mean, from the sun go down ‘til the sun rise. And then they’d dance the whole week — and that’s called “tract” . . . .

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